KYIV/ISTANBUL — Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy dismissed the importance of the first grain export shipment from his country since Russia invaded, saying it was carrying a fraction of the crop Kyiv must sell to help salvage its shattered economy.
His downbeat comments, via video to students in Australia on Wednesday, came as an inspection of the ship was completed in Turkey before it continued to its final destination in Lebanon under a deal aimed at easing a global food crisis.
The ship, Razoni, departed from Ukraine’s Odesa port on the Black Sea early on Monday carrying 26,527 tonnes of corn to Lebanon’s Tripoli. It followed a U.N.-brokered grain and fertilizer export agreement between Moscow and Kyiv last month – a rare diplomatic breakthrough in a drawn-out war of attrition.
But Zelenskiy, speaking via an interpreter, said more time was needed to see whether other grain shipments would follow.
“Just recently, thanks to the UN in partnership with Turkey, we had a first ship with the delivery of grain, but it’s still nothing. But we hope it’s a tendency that will continue,” he told the students.
He said Ukraine had to export a minimum 10 million tonnes of grain to urgently help bring down its budget deficit which was running at $5 billion a month.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the first grain shipment but also said it was “only a first step.”
A senior Turkish official said three ships could leave Ukrainian ports daily after the Razoni’s departure, while Ukraine’s infrastructure minister said 17 more ships had been loaded with agricultural produce and were waiting to set sail.
Known as Europe’s breadbasket, Ukraine hopes to export 20 million tonnes of grain held in silos and 40 million tonnes from the harvest now underway, initially from Odesa and nearby Pivdennyi and Chornomorsk.
“The war…is almost killing the economy. It’s in a coma,” Zelenskiy added. “Russia’s blocking of the ports is a great loss for the economy.
Zelenskiy has repeatedly warned that Moscow may try to obstruct exports despite signing up to last month’s deal.
PUTIN AND SCHROEDER
Russia, which blockaded Ukraine’s ports after beginning on Feb. 24 what it called “a special military operation,” has said it wants to see more done to facilitate the exports of its own grain and fertilizers. But it has hailed the departure of the first grain ship from Ukraine as positive.
It has denied responsibility for the food crisis, saying sanctions by the West, which regards the war as an unprovoked imperial-style Russian land grab, have slowed its exports.
The exports from Ukraine, one of the world’s top grain producers, are intended to ease price rises and shortages, with famine looming in some parts of the world.
Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said the grain deal might offer a way forward out of conflict.
“The good news is that the Kremlin wants a negotiated solution,” Schroeder told Stern weekly and broadcasters RTL/ntv on Wednesday, adding he had met Putin in Moscow last week.
“A first success is the grain deal, perhaps that can be slowly expanded to a ceasefire.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had also told Schroeder that, in theory, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was ready to be used to help increase gas supplies to Europe.
Germany and some other European countries are planning for a winter supply crunch after Moscow cut gas supplies via another pipeline, the Nord Stream 1, citing technical issues with gas turbines supplied by Siemens Energy.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)